Today's gadgets, yesterday's arcades

Games: Technology is allowing video game junkies to relive their childhoods - and most of it is even legal.

September 18, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

I feel about Pac-Man the way my mother feels about "Casablanca."

Just like a great movie, a classic rock'n roll song or the season the Red Sox almost beat the Reds in the World Series, my favorite arcade games bring back memories of youth.

During the arcade craze of the early 80s, I was a teen-ager in Massachusetts, and quarters burned holes in my pocket until I could get a bunch of friends together to head for the cartoonish lights and sounds of Holyoke Mall's arcade. It was all about fun.

Now, at 36, I get that feeling again - at least for a few nostalgic hours a week - thanks to a 200-pound arcade cabinet in my basement that stands nearly six feet tall. It's a wonderful retro-toy capable of playing thousands of the old games - PacMan, Space Invaders, Frogger, Berzerk, and Donkey Kong, to name a few - that have been buried for two decades in the recesses of my memory.

"The main thing is that it brings the old arcade feel back," says Conway Ho, 32, a longtime arcade player and co-founder of HanaHo Games of Cerritos, Calif., which makes the ArcadePC cabinet.

"It's for anyone that loved the arcade when they were young and spent countless hours playing the old classic games. They were games that didn't have incredible technology and graphics behind them, just good game play. They kept you playing because they didn't take long to learn but took forever to master."

Ho's nostalgia comes at a price: 4,800 quarters (that's $1,200) for the basic cabinet, a monitor and a proprietary "HotRod" arcade joystick panel, a nifty piece of engineering that recreates arcade controls with keyboard programming.

The price does not include the Pentium-class computer you'll need to stash in the bottom of the cabinet to run the games. In most cases, an old machine will do fine.

ArcadePC comes with several classic games, and Microsoft and Atari offer collections of popular arcade titles from the past for about $30. If you're willing to tinker with software, more than 2,000 games are available free for downloading on the Internet - but they're almost all illegal. More about that later.

While current games such as Quake 3 and Klingon Academy play well on the ArcadePC, the real thrill is in playing the classics the way they played in the arcade.

"It's a sacred thing for me," said Michael Parelli, 24, a Japanese language major at Rutgers University who keeps an ArcadePC in his two-bedroom apartment. His cabinet brings back memories of his days as a 6-year-old in a Point Pleasant, N.J. arcade, where he had to stand on a milk crate to play Centipede.

"The arcades are part of our culture, and they're being swallowed up just like all the old Mom and Pop stores," he added. "For me, the golden age of video games was a special time in my life, kind of like people who look back at the 1950s and drive-in movies."

Technically, the ArcadePC runs smoothly, and its arcade controls put conventional joysticks to shame. To set it up, just connect the built-in monitor, speaker and joystick cables to your computer and you're ready to play. The cabinet even has a roll-out keyboard drawer, so you can still use your computer for other tasks.

Ho says the cabinet business is going well; he's sold more than 200 cabinets. The kids who got hooked on arcades 20 years ago now have the means to buy expensive gadgets. One customer, he said, ordered a custom-made, 24-karat gold plated ArcadePC.

"There really is nothing like it - it's a real WOW piece," Ho said.

It took a quantum leap in computer horsepower and an army of dedicated programmers to resurrect the simple games of the early '80s. One of the driving forces behind the ArcadePC is a free software program called MAME - an acronym for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator.

An emulator is a program that runs on your computer and mimics the hardware and operating system of another computer. In this case, a Pentium pc emulates a variety of old arcade machines, making ancient games like Centipede and Galaxian think they're back in 1980, even though they're running on your hard drive this year.

MAME is an ever-changing work in progress, nurtured by more than 200 volunteer programmers around the world who spend countless hours trying to coax old arcade programs to run on home computers.

Other emulators are available for download, too: altogether, they give the ArcadePC (or virtually any Pentium computer) access to more than 2,300 games. They range from a black-and-white, 1975 shooter called Gun Fight to some high-quality graphics games released just a few years ago. But here's the catch: if you want to play most of them on MAME, you have to download them from the Internet in the form of ROM files - and that's seldom legal.

The ROM, or read-only memory, files are copies of the programming code that was burned into chips on the original arcade machines. Thousands of the ROMs are available on the Internet, but they are still protected by copyrights.

That hasn't stopped tens of thousands of gamers from downloading in much the same way that millions are sharing MP3 music files through Napster, the controversial file-swapping program.

ROM site Webmasters argue the copyrights are moot, since many of the games are no longer sold or used for profit - a "no harm, no foul" defense. But there haven't been any court cases to decide the legality of ROM collection.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of ways to run hundreds of legal games on the ArcadePC. It's a pricey gadget, but the ghosts in PacMan never looked so good.

Arcade Web info

The ArcadePC is for serious arcade addicts. But if you just want to play a few arcade games on your computer, there are plenty on the World Wide Web to download:

Official MAME Page, www.mame.net

Arcade at Home, www.arcadeathome.com

Retrogames, www.retrogames.com

Arcade Rom Heaven, www.arcadeheaven.com

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